OUTLOOK — By Haider Al Lawati — It is often asked whether demands for human rights ought to be tempered by recognition of the cultural differences among peoples. From my point of view, I do completely agree in this regard that people must recognise such differences when they deal with these issues. This leads us to the debate on the extent of the importance of the cultural differences and their impact on human rights standards. Today there are lots of discussions on cultural differences and human rights in terms of whether they are universal or Western. This is a controversial issue since these differences open a debate on certain values and traditions that apply to Asians and Muslims among others.
Thus, it is not expected that the world agree or disagree on everything concerning human rights issues. As we know, the United Nations and the International Bill of Human Rights, which consists of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Act 1948, came into force in 1976. Prior to that, many other nations were applying their own cultural standards regarding human rights.
The declaration of human rights was essential because of the tragedies and horrors faced by the people in the West during the Second World War, and the desire of the international community to adopt a document that would help to respect the fundamental human rights and freedom.
Here, I agree with the point of view given by Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General (1997) who said: “It was the leaders and not the people who complained of the universality of human rights.”
The concept of human rights is the product of historical development and it is closely linked to the specific social, political and economic conditions specific to the history, culture and values of certain countries, like what we see in Asia or with Muslim societies.
This means that the notion of human rights according to the West can be contested since there is a lot of contradictions in many practices between Islam and universal human rights for example. Islam derives its laws from “Sharia” law concerning human rights. In this case the Liberal Muslim thinkers cannot apply any new rules or modern standards to the meaning of human rights. No one, even a king, ruler, judge or any official in the Islamic government bodies could interfere with these rules and judgements. Such issues, however, are seen by the West as against human rights.
Its thus necessary that international organisations concerned with human rights should understand these issues in a logical way and not accuse countries or governments as “criminals” for example.
This shows that a person should be aware that the debate is very important, and that it will have practical results for millions of people, while Western governments believe that such values may lead to the continuation of inequality and spread of the human rights problems elsewhere.
We have to learn from different cultures and perspectives of human rights that are rooted in many cultures, and at the same time we should respect the basis of the universality of human rights that provide protection for all human beings, because culture is not something stable and stagnant, it is sophisticated, but there are always ways by which cultural restructuring can be done.
Here I stress that the world must recognise that a number of actions, practices, laws, regulations and judicial judgements for certain peoples depend on their beliefs, local culture and traditions of justice that were there for thousands of years. The only remedy to make the world understand the issue of human rights and reach for “universality of human rights” in this regard is to respect the cultural differences regarding human rights, by increasing the amount and quality of education, the standards and quality of services and helping the needy so they can absorb the standards called upon by the West.
However, the religious and divine laws remain as mentioned in Islam, or in the old beliefs and their ancient civilisations as in China or India for example, as they are, although they are considered by the West as sometimes as violation of human rights.
Finally, if all the items and articles of the human rights as mentioned in the UN Human Rights Document is a just way, we would be able to end all the cultural differences on human rights. But unfortunately, international issues are selectively treated according to the Western standards, and thus it becomes difficult to adhere completely to this UN document in many cases.